Bribery or Terrible Joke?
The election news out of Jonesboro just got weird and the filing period for candidates has yet to begin.
Three people say they plan to run for the Republican nomination for State Representative in District 53 which is in Craighead County: Bobby Long, who is an alderman in Jonesboro; John Milligan, who is mayor of Lake City; and Dr Cole Peck.
Ty Koons of Lake City who is a supporter of Dr. Cole Peck sent text messages to candidate John Milligan. If you take the text messages at face value, Koons was seeing if Milligan would take a bribe to drop out of the race for the benefit of Dr. Peck. The amount stated in the text messages was a $20,000 scholarship for Milligan’s daughter. In his text message Koons said:
“I assure you I can make it happen, you can exit [the House primary] with your dignity & integrity intact remain mayor until Cole moves to State Senate & then get you in there. Meanwhile Natalie wins, WE ALL WIN.”
Your thoughts? I can schedule a mtg between you & Cole. The offer won’t last forever. I know you want to be State Rep real bad but it’s all about timing (in no way insinuating you can’t win),”
Milligan declined the offer.
See the full exchange in the notes at the end of this article.[i]
Does It Sound Like A Joke?
Now both Koons and Milligan say the text messages were all a joke by Koons. At least one person has said. “They joke like that all the time.” Really? Considering Milligan’s initial reaction appears to have been to try to protect himself and with Koons saying they are no longer friends, does it still sound like a joke between friends?
After receiving the text messages Milligan sought to protect himself.
“I sent them [the text messages] to my campaign people. I didn’t want somebody coming up later and say, ‘Why didn’t you turn it over?’”
If it was a joke, why did Koons say they are no longer friends? The Democrat-Gazette reported,
“Koons, asked if he and the mayor are still friends, said: ‘No ma’am. Absolutely not.’”
Do you just drop the investigation because they now claim it was all a joke? What about that other odd part of the text message where Koons says, “you can exit with your dignity & integrity intact…” Was that phrase nothing or does it remind you of the Krispy Kreme caper? (If the Krispy Kreme caper doesn’t ring a bell don’t worry it will be explained later in this article.)
And If Not The World’s Worst Joke?
If it wasn’t a joke, did Dr. Peck know about the supposed bribe? Dr. Peck said, “My campaign never authorized anyone to make contact with a fellow candidate regarding these, or any other allegations.”
If it wasn’t a joke, was Koons hoping to entrap Milligan into saying something in a meeting that would make it sound like he was soliciting a bribe from Peck?
Getting To The Truth
Let’s hope local law enforcement and the State Police will sort through the stories of Koons, Milligan, and Peck and find out whether it was really a case of the world’s worst jokester or something worse. Whether local law enforcement or the State Police are investigating is unknown.
It appears that at least a nominal investigation was undertaken by the Attorney General’s office. Although the AG’s office won’t confirm an investigation, Ty Koons told the reporter he had been questioned by an investigator from the AG’s office.
Move On – Nothing To See Here
Dr Peck’s written statement also said,
“We look forward to turning the conversation back to the issues facing Craighead Co and hope the other candidates will help us do that.”
Hold your horses there pardner. Are you suggesting questions of ethics are not important in Craighead County? How can the ethics not be an extremely important issue when the public is trying to figure out – bribe or worst joke ever? How can you not be sensitive to the ethics of this situation considering recent events in Arkansas politics:
- Last year Senator Jim Hendren confirmed that in 2011 Jon Woods tried to solicit a bribe of at least $10,000 to not run against Hendren if redistricting put them in the same Senate District.[ii] Hendren reported it but declined to wear a wire. They did not end up in the same district.
- In 2013, there was the Krispy Kreme caper. Duncan Baird recorded his opponent Dennis Milligan at their meeting at Krispy Kreme in Little Rock where Baird was urged to get out of the State Treasurer’s race to avoid the release of supposedly damaging information.[iii] Baird declined to drop out.
- In 2012 State Representative Hudson Hallum pled guilty to election fraud for buying the votes of absentee voters.[iv]
- In 1994, candidate Gus Wingfield claimed his opponent Bobby Tullis offered to get out of the State Auditor’s race if Wingfield would promise to give him a job.
- In 2013, Jonesboro’s own Senator Paul Bookout resigned in disgrace and later pled guilty of mail fraud for spending more than $150,000 on personal expenditures from a campaign fund .[v]
- Senator Bookout was not the only state senator to become a felon from charges stemming from misuse of campaign funds. Earlier in 2019, Senator Jeremy Hutchinson, pled guilty to several felonies including one stemming from taking campaign funds for personal use.[vi]
- In the past couple of years numerous public officials and lobbyists have pled guilty or been convicted of bribery, kickbacks, or fraud: Senator Jeremy Hutchinson, Senator Jon Woods, Senator Jake Files, Senator Hank Wilkins, Representative Micah Neal, lobbyist and former Representative Eddie Cooper, state employee and former state Representative Steven Jones, and lobbyist Rusty Cranford.
- After digging by the Democrat Gazette it was revealed earlier this year that Representative Jeff Wardlaw had been partners with a nursing home owner at a time when he was chair of the Public Health Committee which among other things handles legislation concerning nursing homes.[vii] Despite this rather important omission the legislature took NO steps to require further disclosure by legislators of their business interests.
- During part of his tenure as a state representative James Sturch, now a Senator, worked for a registered lobbyist and the business address was the same as the lobbying business, but the legislature did nothing to either prevent such a relationship in the future or to require disclosure of such a relationship.[viii]
- The state legislature remains an environment where legislators can resign at any time to take a high paying state job with the governor’s help for his friends. No legislation has been filed to require a cooling off period.
Instead of saying lets move on to something else, Peck would have been much better served by encouraging a full investigation to clear his name. And, Peck would have been better served to have condemned his supporter’s actions as being inappropriate even if it was just a poor excuse for a joke. Neither of those things happened. …. instead move on.
This is not the first time a Dr. Cole Peck campaign has been embroiled in controversy. In his failed 2018 campaign for the same office, Peck sent out a campaign mailer falsely claiming his opponent’s former company was under investigation for Medicaid fraud. When caught in the falsehood Dr. Peck then claimed there was an error in the mailer and it should have said the company had been under investigation not “is” under investigation.[ix] That excuse never held water. It makes no sense. FIRST, there would have been NO campaign value to saying a company “had been” under investigation, since if any wrongdoing had been found, the mailer would have been talking about the wrongdoing not a past investigation. SECOND, Peck’s excuse for the false mailer fell apart when Peck couldn’t provide any proof of a past investigation into the company . THIRD, he then claimed he had seen the information in a newspaper article, but the Jonesboro Sun searched its database and the database of the Democrat Gazette and could not find any such article.
The last thing anyone should do is to start slinging mud (like Dr. Peck did in 2018 when he used a falsehood to attack his opponent). And, it is NOT mud to take this episode seriously and conduct a full investigation to get to the truth.
Was Koons’ text messages an attempt at bribery or was it an appalling attempt at a joke? Even if after an investigation it turns out it was only a terrible attempt at a joke, this episode will still go down as yet another embarrassment in Arkansas political history.
Aren’t you sick of Arkansas’s political swamp? Hold politicians accountable!
[i] Texts raise cloud in Arkansas House seat race; scholarship reference ‘a joke,’ mayor says, Democrat Gazette, 10/25/2019
“Next thing ill hear you say is you’re dropping out & endorsing Cole lol. It’d be beneficial to both of you,” said the first text message by Koons.
“U won’t hear me say that,” Milligan responded.
Koons: “Lol, you sure?”
Milligan: “Yea why would I do that”
Koons: “Beneficial to you.”
Milligan: “How’s that”
Koons: “You know they have 20 thousand dollars schlorships that would be real easy for Natalie to receive. Would that be beneficial?”
Milligan: “Oh yea it’s amazing she or we never heard it before”
(Milligan’s daughter is a medical school student at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, according to the mayor.)
Koons: “I assure you I can make it happen, you can exit [the House primary] with your dignity & integrity intact remain mayor until Cole moves to State Senate & then get you in there. Meanwhile Natalie wins, WE ALL WIN.”
Koons then continued: “Your thoughts? I can schedule a mtg between you & Cole. The offer won’t last forever. I know you want to be State Rep real bad but it’s all about timing (in no way insinuating you can’t win),”
The text stream concludes with Milligan refusing to bow out of the District 53 primary: “Think I’ll pass on the bailing out and the scholarship. Win or lose GOD will see me thru it just like he always has and because of him Natalie will always be a winner.”
Koons: “Yes sir I understand.”
[ii] Arkansas senator says former state lawmaker sought bribe, Democrat Gazette, 09/04/2018
[iii] Endorsement notes candidate ‘not an extortionist or blackmailer’ Democrat Gazette, 11/20/2013
[iv] State representative pleads guilty to election fraud, Democrat Gazette, 09/05/2019
[v] Ex-Sen. Bookout pleads guilty in mail fraud case, Democrat Gazette, 03/11/2015
[vi] Ex-Sen. Hutchinson pleads guilty to tax fraud, felony bribery charges, Democrat Gazette, 06/26/2019
[vii] State legislator reveals work ties to owner of nursing homes: Wardlaw chaired House health panel in 2017-18, sits on Legislative Council, Democrat Gazette, 01/27/2019
[ix] Peck Admits Mailer Contained Error: Incumbent Sullivan believes “lie” was purposely circulated, Jonesboro Sun 05/20/2018